Monday, February 27, 2017



The Poetry Deal by Diane di Prima
(City Lights Publishers, San Francisco, 2014)

To my relief, I learned about quasars through Diane diPrima’s The Poetry Deal. I was relieved at the lesson as what she taught me, quasars, gave me a prompt for writing an engagement with her book.  The Poetry Deal was released in 2014 but I didn’t think to review it until recently because I anticipated there wouldn’t be much I could say that others have already said: the book, as the publisher’s description offers,

is the first volume of new poetry in decades from legendary feminist Beat poet Diane di Prima. This collection provides a personal and political look at forty years of Bay Area culture, often elegiac in tone; the book captures the poet’s sense of loss as she chronicles the deaths of friends from the AIDS epidemic as well as the passing of illustrious countercultural colleagues. Yet even as she laments the state of the city today, she finds triumph and solace in her own relationships, the marriages of her friends, the endurance of City Lights, and other symbols of San Francisco’s heritage.

What can one—or I—say that’s worth saying or that others (including blurbers Michael McCllure, Amber Tamblyn and Micah Ballard) hadn’t said before?

Yet, there’s a new President in town, ushering in a new type of society. And I remembered di Prima’s book which, as a memoir, described a way of life scratched out and woven together by someone who very much understood her center from which she would live her chosen life. That “center,” as I put it, is poetry: she determined at age 14 that there “was no reason [she] couldn’t do what these folks [Keats, Shelley, Tom Wolfe and others] had done. No reason I couldn’t at least try. At that moment I made what I knew would be a life-long commitment. // From then onward for many years I didn’t let a day go by without writing.”  This is revealed by the book’s opening, her Inaugural Address as a former San Francisco Poet Laureate.

The book ends with another essay, “SOME WORDS ABOUT THE POEM.” Between the two essays are poems. The poems include the title poem “The Poetry Deal” which, among other things, draws my attention to quasars and focuses me on them for the first time (of course I’d heard of them but hadn’t paid them much thought prior to the nudge from di Prima’s poem).

As she explains in her Inaugural Address, the “you” in The Poetry Deal is her poetry “Muse.” To said Muse, di Prima says

I want to say that I don’t want anything
but the whisper of yr scarf as you do
the Dance of the Seven Veils
soft sound of yr satin slippers on the carpet
and the raw, still bloody meat you toss my way
that I chew on, all night long.

I don’t want anything you don’t already give me:
trips to other worlds,     dimensions of light
or sound,     rides on the back of a leopard
on those black rocks, high over
some sea or gorge.   But it isn’t true

I want all that,     sheet lightning of quasars
that you dance between, those colors, yes,
but I want you as mother, sister
stone walls of the cave I lie in
in trance for seven days,     the mist around my cabin
that makes it invisible.

I want the flare & counterpoint of words

The poem continues on to describe the contract she was willing to make with her Muse: to always choose the Muse above all else, especially (she adds later in the poem) because the one exception she would have chosen ahead of the Muse—her kids—no longer (at a certain age) impedes a total commitment. Yet this poem ends with

I stand before you: a piece of wind
w/ a notebook & pen

which one of us is it dances?
and which is the quasar?

To understand di Prima’s question—to understand the poem—or at least to better understand both—I had to learn more about the quasar. Here’s an image from NASA/ESA of an “artist’s concept…(of) a quasar, or feeding black hole… where astronomers discovered huge amounts of water vapor. Gas and dust likely form a torus around the central black hole, with clouds of charged gas above and below. (You can read more from Universe Today’s aptly-titled article, “What is a Quasar.”)

Isn't that image lovely?! And, in the above image, you also can see to what di Prima refers in her lines

I want all that,     sheet lightning of quasars
that you dance between, those colors, yes,

But these lines are immediately followed by the very down-to-earth line

but I want you as mother, sister

There would seem to be a contrast between the notion of dancing between the lightning emitted from quasars to the more earthly buttresses of a mother and/or sister.  But what di Prima’s life proves is that there is no contrast, no binary, in Poetry between elements seemingly at odds with each other.  The book’s ending essay, “SOME WORDS ABOUT THE POEM,” is a life-earned ars poetica, which includes

Poetry holds paradox without striving to solve anything.

There is, to answer the ending question of “The Poetry Deal,” no need to choose either to be the dancing lightning or one dancing between lightning versus to be the quasar, source of lightning. In Poetry, one can be both—or, it’s best to be both:

Poetry is our heart’s cry and our heart’s ease. It constantly renews our seeing: so we can speak the constantly changing Truth.

The lessons (of which I cite just a few) from her ars poetica essay resonate more when one knows of the life di Prima has lived (if you haven’t already, check out her Memoirs of a Beatnik and Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years). Her lessons aren’t theoretical—they are proven and distilled from an actual lived life.

This leads me to why I was moved to pick up the book again. In “SOME WORDS ABOUT THE POEM,” di Prima also writes:

Poets speak truth when no one else can or will. That’s why the hunger for poetry grows when the world grows dark. When repression grows, when people speak in whispers or not at all, they turn to poetry to find out what’s going on.

Poetry holds the tale of the tribe—of each and every tribe, so when we hear it, we can hear each other, begin to know where we came from.

Since the presidential elections, I’ve heard more than one poet express the fear of getting the attention of the new administration which, after all, has not shied away from threatening those who would disagree with its policies. These poets shared their fear, and then, what happened? Well, they are poets, and so they continued on to protest—loudly—through their writings as well as their actions.

One can be scared of something and also rush to engage that something—that’s a paradoxical act facilitated by Poetry. For offering this reminder, this affirmation, di Prima’s The Poetry Deal is not just recommended but timely.

As for quasars? Well, over 20 years after they were first discovered, scientists came to agree on the “active galaxy theory as the source of quasars” such that several types of objects—quasars, blazars and radio galaxies—are actually all the same thing. They were thought initially to be different from each other only because they looked different when seen from different angles. This active galaxy theory raises (in classic Poetry leap) this question: is No. 45’s new administration really a … new threat?


Eileen Tabios is the editor of Galatea Resurrects. Her 2017 poetry releases include two books, two booklets and three poetry chaps. More info at

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